Henry Rollins: My Life Has Been a Hustle
Photo by Heidi May
Never once in high school did I ever have a thought as to what I was “going to be” when I went out into the world.
It wasn’t a problem of low ambition; I was just too spazzed out to think of a “career.” To this day, that word seems strange to me. To have a profession, that means you have to be good at something. I respected that, but I knew I was going to have problems dealing with what it would take.
I was not anti-career — just unable to think past working the same kinds of jobs I had done for years. I had a lot of anger and frustration but next to no imagination or direction.
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I knew I was a strange person and that a lot of conventional paths required more smarts, focus and common sense than I was ever going to be able to summon.
When I got a chance to audition for a band in 1981, and potentially be part of something that didn’t involve wearing an apron and punching a timecard, I went for it. I figured, at worst, I would be able to find another place later where I could get more low-skilled work.
Ever since then, my life has been a hustle, a prolonged improv. Rarely have I ever had a deal, contract or line of employment that lasted longer than two albums, a season or some other agreed-upon time period.
Whenever I start a new venture, there is some short-term euphoria. I have several weeks before I’ll need to start wondering if I will get more work from the outfit I’m currently involved with, or scramble to find something else.
Like someone with three broken ribs being asked if it hurts, I can smile and say that this is an “interesting” way to “make a living.” It keeps me “in the moment,” as the only sure thing is that there is no sure thing. My basic mode of operation is, as Iggy Pop once said at the beginning of his song “Bang Bang”: “This isn’t the right thing to do, so let’s go.”
For someone who places so much emphasis on purpose, I go about job acquisition like someone who seeks failure.
Like a dog with its nose to the ground, moving quickly in search of something to eat: This is how I am with employment. I am always looking, because nothing I am involved with has more than 12 months of certainty.
Even L.A. Weekly or KCRW could do just fine without me. Either of these fine establishments could cut me loose tomorrow. As much as I love these jobs, they’re week-to-week.
This way of living has made me far more resourceful and bold than I ever thought I was capable of as a young person.
Sometimes things are going incredibly well, until they aren’t, and that’s when everything becomes more vivid, as if I had been staving off the eventuality of no job in the opium den of employment.
Last year, I devoted about half the year to a television show. It took from me and all the others who worked on it everything we had. It was nothing but good — involving, challenging and exhausting.
Almost immediately upon wrapping out of the last day, we all started wondering if we were going to be back together again in a few months, to beat ourselves up and make another season of fantastic content.
It took a while but eventually we found out that our collective services would no longer be needed. The network had moved on. All of us scattered like flying shrapnel in search of another job.
For me, it was all but impossible not to take the shove out the door personally. But that’s just emo dithering, which gets you nowhere. In the corporate world of live-and-die-by-numbers, I have learned that if you keep moving, you stand a chance. So that’s what I did.
Off I went into weeks of bicoastal conference calls, production meetings and pitches. 2014 ended with a foot in the door, which is as good as a piton in the side of the mountain. Better than nothing, but no guarantee.
As much as I dislike the anxiety, distraction and frustration all this can cause, it also generates a lot of excitement, and that keeps me sharp. I have decided, after all these years, that this is perhaps the best part. It is, in a way, like being a perpetual freshman — or maybe just a fuck-up who never got it together.
My parents both had it together to such a degree that one spent decades in one office building and the other in only two. They were both extraordinarily driven people, and while I have nothing but respect for what they did, I am not strong enough to withstand the bludgeoning that comes with it.
The idea of retirement, an essential component of that kind of employment, makes me think that, as much as you might like the job, it still has an adversarial, punishment/reward role in your life. The goal isn’t work but the cessation of work.
If all I do for a living is endure a regimen of torture until I can stop beating my head against the wall and settle down with some aspirin, then I think I should have been bolder and risked more.
This is why, no matter how hard any workday can be, I find a way to enjoy it. Because in my case, it’s always fleeting.
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